A Travellerspoint blog

Pereira and Salento

26th April to 29th April 2014


Our last morning in Medellin was spent having a leisurely breakfast at Angela’s after getting up early. We then caught a bus to the main bus terminal where we got out 6 hour bus to Pereira, a city further south in the coffee zone of Colombia. The journey was beautiful as we climbed up through the mountains, but with all the bends Susanne felt a bit sickly. We made it into Pereira at about 7.30pm and caught a taxi straight to Juan’s house (the guy from the lost city trek) – once again a very kind Colombian offered up his bed for us for the night. We went out for some late dinner in a very groovy bar-restaurant and then headed to the so called zona rosa (‘pink’ zone) party area of Pereira. We stumbled across a very cool bar that reminded us of being in Bristol. Funnily enough it used to be called Bristol, but has since changed its name to Camden Town and classes itself as a ‘gastro pub’ – funny, even though it is a funky bar with bicycles as decoration on the wall! In the morning, all three of us headed off to Salento (as Juan decided to have a day trip out) stumbling across a religious procession as we wandered through the streets to find a taxi. Salento is a small town/village in the mountains and is renowned for its traditional ‘paisa’ architecture (paisa refers to the region) and stunning walks in the nearby Valle de Cocora. We arrived into Salento in the late afternoon and checked into a hostel called Plantation House. The rooms were rather overpriced, so in the end we went for a four bed dorm that luckily had no-one else in it. The place was owned by a rather arrogant English-man and was a typical case of ‘Lonely Planet syndrome’ – when a hostel/hotel has a great write-up in Lonely Planet, is quite old and is well-known in the area it starts to go downhill quite rapidly. After sorting out accommodation, we had some lunch in the main square area which was quite touristy, but really nice. It was actually full of loads of Colombian day-trippers as it was a Sunday, but normally during the week it has its fair share of foreign tourists. We had a wonderful trout and patacón (basically a massive crisp made from plantain) and then had lovely strawberries and cream on the square. Afterwards we headed off to do a coffee tour as the area is renowned for coffee. After an hour or so walk with lovely views across the hills, we found the coffee farm and were taken around by a rather un-enthused young woman who didn’t actually like coffee. It was interesting to learn about the process though, and we were able to pick coffee beans and grind them, as well as having a tasting session of the beautifully smooth coffee that the farm produces. Susanne was very enthusiastic when being able to pick coffee beans (she had the most at the end!) and even climbed onto a homemade bamboo ladder. After the farm, we rushed back into town before it got dark and so that Juan could get his bus back to Pereira. The rest of the evening was spent chilling in the hostel.

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The next day we woke up early to get to a nature reserve called Kasaguardia owned by a British chap called Nicholas who we had met yesterday. He bought some land from farmers around 10 years ago and has turned it into a lovely nature reserve that features different stages of rainforest – succession (which is forest in recovery), young secondary jungle and mature secondary jungle. As we wandered through the forest we learned about these different stages, pioneer plants (which grow up before trees to provide enough protection from direct sunlight so that more dominant species can grow), the bamboo that is grown in the area and how it is processed. It was really interesting and Nicholas delivered his tour with such passion and enthusiasm. The wider vision is to build a self-sustainable eco lodge on the reserve for people to stay at. He proudly showed us the architectural plans and was excited that they are nearly at the construction stage as soon as they get permission from the town council – it would be great to come back in a few years to see how the project has developed. They even won an award for the architectural design of the planned lodges. After the tour we walked back to town and then moved ourselves to a different hostel that we had found the day before called La Floresta, which was a lot nicer and we were able to get a lovely private room with bathroom for the same price as a crappy double without bathroom at Plantation House. We had some lunch in town where Matt tried a typical dish called bandeja paisa, a massive tray of meat, beans, rice, avocado, plantain and arepa – think of an artery-busting fry up and you’ll be close! For the rest of the day we chilled out at the hostel reading and mingling with other people staying there. Part of the reason we stayed there was also because it was chucking it down with rain in the afternoon, so we didn’t have much desire to go outside. We went to bed early as we needed to get up early for our big trek the next day. However, as our bed was right next to the communal area we could hear everything and so didn’t get much sleep!

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The next day we woke up early to catch a jeep (called a ‘willie’!) to a village called Cocora where we started our trek through the Valle de Cocora. When we woke it was raining loads, but luckily it subsided and apart from a tiny bit in the afternoon, we had no rain at all. The walk started through beautiful farm land with views of the hills and valley. The environment was really strange – with the green grass, lush trees and cows it reminded us of home, but the presence of palm trees and tropical trees completely changed the picture! Eventually the path led into a rainforest section where we had to cross rickety bridges across an incredibly fierce and fast river. At the top of the hill we reached a reserve called Acaima, which in reality was a house at the top of the hill owned by an old couple who were visited by tons of hummingbirds. We arrived and were given a typical hot chocolate with cheese while we sat awestruck by the number of hummingbirds flying around and visiting the bird feeders. The guy told us that they have six different species and they were all beautiful. So we sat around for about an hour and a half trying to take photos of these incredibly fast little buggers as they flitted around the area. We also saw a really weird animal that looked like across between a weasel, fox and a badger but that jumped in trees like a monkey – it was seriously weird. The animal feeds at the same reserve and a chicken had a bit of a stand off with him, but gave up as it was growling at the chicken.

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After taking loads of photos we continued our journey to the top of the mountain which was at 3010 metres with a doggie following us who had apparently followed another couple from the village all the way along the route. The ascent was quite hard but short, and before we knew it we arrived at another house with views of the surrounding mountains with clouds drifting in. The area is renowned for its cloud forests and it was quite amazing to see a mass of clouds drift across the trees. It turns out that this was the top even though the mountain went a bit higher. We only worked this out after walking 10 minutes along the path that returned to town, and so decided to head back to the house at the top of the hill to have lunch and take in the view again. On the way back down we passed through an area full of the iconic wax palm trees (which incidentally is Colombia’s national tree), with loads of palms poking out of the surrounding grass-covered fields. They grow incredibly tall and are really thin, so it seems impossible that they can stand up. With the clouds drifting around us, it was all very beautiful and mysterious. Every now and then the clouds would pass and we would have lovely views across the valley with these palms poking up into the sky. Unfortunately, because the area is heavily farmed these wax palms will eventually disappear with no others being able to grow. Nonetheless, it was a stunning sight and we could understand why it was described as one of the most striking landscapes in Colombia. We made it back to the village of Cocora just in time for our jeep back. For the rest of the evening we had another round of strawberries and cream and chilled out in the hostel again cooking a nice dinner for ourselves. Tomorrow we have to leave lovely Salento and make for the city of Cali for some salsa dancing!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 14:10 Archived in Colombia Comments (2)

Cartagena and Medellin

22nd April to 25th April 2014


We woke up early in Minca to allow enough time to get to Cartagena, as it was a bit of a journey and we wanted to arrive before nightfall. The first stage of the journey involved the trek back up the hilly path with all of our luggage, which was worse than the way down. We got into the centre of the village in good time and had some breakfast before heading off to Santa Marta station. Luckily there was a bus leaving for Cartagena quite quickly, so we were off and away within half an hour. We arrived into the bus station in Cartagena in the mid-afternoon, which was unfortunately nearly an hour away from the town centre made worse by the horrendous traffic. Cartagena is renowned for its beautiful old historic centre, with lovely colonial buildings of all manner of colours and cobbled streets. However, outside the old city walls the rest of the city is a different story – it was busy, dirty, loud and clearly very poor which was quite sad to see given the look of the old centre and how expensive everything is there. Eventually we arrived to an area close to the old city walls and found an alright hotel recommended in Lonely Planet to lay our heads down. We were advised that the old town was nice and safe to walk around at night, so we headed out in the early evening to get some food and then looked around the centre. We wandered around the lovely, quaint streets and took in the great atmosphere of the place. It was clearly really touristy, particularly with the near-to-European prices in the historic centre, but it was really nice to meander around getting lost in the streets and stumbling across cute little plazas and parks. We were glad to see that there were plenty of locals milling around, so it wasn’t completely dominated by tourists. We stumbled across an ice cream place called Paradiso and we swear that they had the best caramel ice cream we have ever tasted in our lives, plus all manner of other flavours which were also stunning (at least the ones we tried). After being blown away by the delicious ice cream, Matt had a beer in one of the bars that had chairs and tables out on the plaza where there was also a really funny mime artist performing. He was imitating people that walked past, while they were not noticing him and holding their hands. He also jumped on the back of the horse carts and just pretended to engage in conversations. His funniest trick was stopping taxis, ducking in front of the car and quietly crawling away while the driver of the car was still thinking he was in front on the floor, causing a traffic jam. He also pretended to pull cars by an invisible rope. He was just incredibly funny and we had to sneak away, so that he did not try to imitate us walking.

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In the morning we bought a croissant breakfast and ate it in one of the plazas in the old town. Then we spent the rest of the day milling around the town again, but this time in the daylight popping into churches and little alleys. We also couldn’t help going to the ice cream place again – twice, just to have the caramel ice cream!! We were also lucky enough to stumble across what we thought was a church, but was in fact a high-end restaurant that had loads of free tasters in a kind of market atmosphere!! Susanne was in picky heaven and Matt thought was ways we could go back into and try the food again… After lunch and the third ice cream experience, we caught a bus back to the main terminal where we got the overnight bus to Medellin. Unfortunately, there were only two bus companies that went to Medellin and so the prices were quite high (£30 each). However, the company we went with (Rapido Ochoa) had the best bus service we have ever been on anywhere in the world. The seats were massive and comfy, there was loads of leg room (far more than on a plane), personal TV sets, charging points and free wifi. All that was missing was a drinks service!! So we sat back and watched the new Leonardo Dicaprio film (The Wolf of Wall Street), which is really good if anyone hasn’t seen it! Susanne was now in Leo heaven… We also managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep despite the air conditioning being at an arctic temperature.

We arrived into Medellin at about 9.30am and then tried to work out our onward travel, as we had arranged to stay with Angela one of the people that we met on the lost city trek who kindly offered us a room to stay in. We worked out where to go and hopped onto Medellin’s fancy and modern metro system. However, we got off at the wrong stop and so after an hour’s walk with our backpacks, we arrived at her apartment in a massive apartment block, with full security and a swimming pool. When we arrived she was still at work, but her nanny (Beatrice) was there looking after her 6 year old son Simón and the 15 year old son Sebastian was there as well. Because Simón likes staying in his Mum’s bed, we were able to stay in his room which was really kind of them. At around half 12, Angela came back and we had lunch together and were treated to a dance show from Simón who adores Michael Jackson. So he promptly dressed up in a gold jacket and hat, switched on a live Jackson video and then copied the dance moves pretty much spot on – it was really cute! We felt quite at home and very privileged to experience a Colombian home. Afterwards, we headed off on the metro to the botanical gardens as Angela had to go back to work, which were really nice and then we wandered back into the really busy centre that reminded us of an Asian city! There were some lovely church buildings and a great plaza with sculptures from Fernando Botero who is famed for his disproportionate artwork and statues of large, naked ladies and men (with small bits). After some dinner and a wander around the centre, we headed back to Angela’s house for an early night as we were knackered after the night bus.

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The next morning Angela had made a lovely Colombian breakfast of arepa (like maize pancakes), eggs and cheese before we headed off to do a bit of sightseeing around the centre. Because she was running late for work we got a taxi in and wandered around near where she worked in the commercial and governmental district. We were really impressed by the modern architecture and green spaces, and it really reminded us of Bristol in some places – it is a fantastic city and made us miss our Bristol and friends. Then at 10am we met with Angela and her boyfriend Carlos who was also on the lost city trek, and they both wanted to take us on a tour of some of the projects they work on. They both work for a governmental development agency called Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano (Company of Urban Development) that implements various projects across the city aimed at providing services for the poorer and more dangerous neighbourhoods, building access routes to the centre as many of the poorer areas are high up on the sides of the valley and so on. To put this into context, Medellin used to be considered the most dangerous city on the planet primarily because it was the drug capital of Colombia and was mostly controlled by the drug lord Pablo Escobar who was shot in 1993 by the government. However, even after his death it still remained plagued by gang warfare, murders, muggings, raping and kidnappings. In 2002, a hardline politician named Uribe took power and started a massive security programme across the country with Medellin going through a massive transformation that turned it into the safe, modern and fantastic city that it is today. It really is amazing to see the transformation that has taken place given the city’s dramatic and tragic history.

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The projects that Angela and Carlos work on are part of this social transformation. However, they are unlike anything we have seen in any other country and they are even unique in Colombia. Each project involves a team of architects, engineers, social workers, sociologists, psychologists etc so that communities are dragged out of poverty, drugs and crime. We were lucky enough that they took us to see two of the projects. One was in a neighbourhood that used to be extremely dangerous and because it is so high up in the valley the only access to services was via over 500 very steep steps. Part of the transformation in this neighbourhood (apart from building schools, transport links, libraries and other social projects) was the creation of the biggest set of open-air electric stairs in the world (a set of 6) which go from the bottom to the top of the area – it was quite amazing to see and a great achievement. In this barrio and others like it, they have also built schools, sports fields, other transport connections and libraries that are super modern to attract teenagers. There are huge amounts of money being pumped in from the local government. The thing is, these projects are party inspired by suggestions and consultations with the communities and the projects actually work and make a difference! The second one that Carlos in particular was working on was part of wider plans to extend the green belt area around the city and involves the construction of a large park area with a path that connects two communities that previously had a lot of animosity between them. Everyone working on the site (apart from members of the EDU) was contracted from the community. Beyond the park, they are hoping to open up hikes into the nearby mountains. This would provide an opportunity for local people as the government wants to encourage tourism in this area and so local people can work as guides. They are also building cable cars and not just for tourists – these will have a far more important social function because they will provide transport for local communities who live in the hills and who find it very difficult to get into the centre of town. These are just two examples of some of the fantastic projects that are going on in this city, and they really are a model for other cities to follow around the world. We have never seen such innovative projects that create genuine social transformation, especially for a place that has such a troubled history.

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After the tour with Angela and Carlos, we treated them to lunch in a restaurant they suggested which was rammed with locals. We then went off for our second tour which was a city tour led by a young chap who was aptly named Pablo. He took us on a four and a half hour tour of the city centre, taking in all the important sites. As this was a ‘real city tour’ as the company he works for is called, he took us to some of the sites that other people might say are too dangerous or not worth it (all during the day of course!). The great thing about the tour was that he gave us really insightful historical accounts of the city and how it has changed. At 26 years old, he remembers living in Medellin when the city was ‘the most dangerous city in the world’. In particular, he took us to the plaza de las luces (Square of the Lights) which he said around 12 years ago if he went he would have been robbed, raped, mugged or worse, killed. Nowadays it is full of modern architecture including massive light pillars, a library and the building of the secretary of education that was previously a headquarters for drugs and prostitution. The transformation is astonishing (called democratic architecture, taking this square and turning it into something positive through architecture, “square of crime” to the “square of hope”) and he showed us a number of similar sites that had gone through big changes. He also tried to destabilise many of the stereotypes that still plague Colombia particularly regarding drugs. To illustrate these stereotypes, he mentioned a rather funny but awful scenario at the border control when he visited certain countries. On one occasion, he arrived at border control and when the passport controller saw that he had a Colombian passport he started looking him up and down asking what he had in his bag. Then he opened the passport and saw that his name was Pablo and that he lived in Medellin, which made him even more suspicious – the passport controller took Pablo aside and he was checked over by security forces. (Incidentally a friend of a guy on the lost city trek had exactly the same problem and he missed his plane because he was kept at security for four hours on a transferring flight on the way to a human rights conference in the States – how ironic....). Another funny aspect of the tour was the number of contradictions that you find in Colombia. We went to a square with the most beautiful and iconic church in the city , which also happens to be the square where all the prostitutes of all ages and sizes hang out with a number of hotels that rent by the hour and that don't happen to be in Lonely Planet (wonder why...). We also visited a small street next to another church that was full of vendors selling hardcore pornography! The last contradiction was another square where children could take a ride in small cars and drug users could get their next fix (and alcoholics who mix alcoholic hand sanatiser with soft drinks!). The tour ended in a plaza where there were two statues of a bird by sculpted by Botero – one that was blown to pieces and a new one next to it. The story behind this was that a bomb was put inside the sculpture that killed 25 people during a free open air concert. The town council were going to remove the statute but the mayor received a phone call from the artist saying that it had to remain. He built the new one as a symbol of hope and the future for a new Medellin. The tour was so inspirational and the guy delivered it with an incredible passion, as well as having a great ability to condense really complex social and historical stories making them easier to understand without ignoring the complexities. The tour handily ended in at the place we were due to meet Angela and Carlos, so we went off to a university area where there were loads of bars and a book fair. We browsed the fair (with some horrendously overpriced books – we’re talking up to £10 for a second hand book), ate some street food and had a couple of beers before heading back to Angela’s. Tomorrow it’s off to Pereira to meet with Juan from the lost city trek. Medellin has been amazing and inspirational, so it’ll be sad to leave! Thank you again to Angela and Carlos to make the city the most memorable city on our journey!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 11:27 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Santa Marta and Minca

20th April to 21st April 2014


In the morning we were rudely awaken at 6.30 by a procession going on outside with a full band of drums and brass for Easter Sunday celebrations. We got ready quickly to try to see it in action (as we couldn’t sleep anymore anyway!), but by the time we got downstairs it had already finished and the service had moved into the cathedral. So we enquired about our bus to Cartagena, but the hotel clerk couldn’t get through to the bus company so we wandered around in search of breakfast. We passed by another hostel to get some information and found a leaflet for a place called Minca above Santa Marta, which was supposed to be really chilled out and good for birdwatching. So even though Matt had problems deviating from the plan, we decided to head for Minca instead of going to Cartagena in order to relax after the lost city trek. We packed up our stuff and headed out to the shared taxi rank, which wasn’t really a taxi at all but a banged up jeep that only left when it was full. It all felt slightly dodgy, but in the end we left and had a really nice driver who was telling us about the area. We also bumped into a group of young teenagers who tried to stop cars to get money from the drivers, saying that they are employed by the local government to clean up the roads – they even had cards and uniforms! However, in the three years that our driver had been doing this trip he had never once seen them doing any cleaning!

After a steep journey up the mountain, we arrived in Minca which was a really small lively town that was positioned right on a river. And then began the hunt for rooms. As we were at the end of Easter Week the place was still quite full, but after phoning around and walking around for a while we managed to find a hostel with space called Oscar’s Place that supposedly had a pool. We made full use of the cool Colombian ‘minutos’ system where you pay 10-15p a minute to make phone calls from someone else’s mobile. We were told that the walk to the hostel was 15minutes, but what we didn’t know was that it was an up-and-down path through the woods which was quite a challenge with our massive backpacks. We arrived sweaty and ready to jump in the pool, until we found out that the ‘pool’ was more of a small pond complete with tadpoles so we lost the urge quite quickly! We also discovered that the room the guy said was available wasn’t, but he kindly put us in their ‘superior’ double for the same price as the original room. This ‘superior’ room didn’t have any electricity and only had an outside shower on full show to all who walked by (!), but it was very romantic with candles in the room. Despite its back-to-basics style, the hostel was gorgeous and surrounded by trees with stunning views across the mountains and to the sea, hammocks to chill out in and some very friendly staff including the stoner-owner Oscar. After checking in, we spent an hour or so doing our washing by hand working our way through all the dirty clothes from the lost city trek – fun! For the rest of the afternoon we rested out walked-out legs by lying in the hammocks and chatting to a friendly couple from Germany (Luis and Jana). We were planning on going into town to either eat there or bring some food back to cook, but felt so lazy that we just ate at the hostel. We also got chatting to a really nice English couple (Becky and Dave), before heading to bed early so that we could wake up for birdwatching.

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We decided to do the birdwatching ourselves as the suggested guide in town had some bad reviews and other ones were far too expensive (the town didn’t have a cash machine so we would have completely run out of money!). We headed out of our room at the ungodly hour of 5.30 and wandered around the hostel’s large amount of land. It wasn’t the most successful experience, partly because we were followed by the hostel’s three dogs that seemed to want to act as our protectors. However, loud dogs running through the bushes aren’t very conducive to a successful birdwatching experience! We did see some lovely birds though, particularly a beautiful woodpecker. The rest of the day was spent dossing in the hammocks again, reading and chatting for a few hours with the English couple. Towards the end of the afternoon Matt, Becky and Dave went into town to buy some ingredients for cooking a communal spaghetti, while Susanne stretched out some yoga overlooking the beautiful mountains. Once the stunning sunset across the mountains had passed, Matt and Becky started to cook in the outside kitchen with only torch light and candles which was quite a nice experience. We actually managed to produce quite a tasty meal and it felt good to actually cook again! After a couple of beers and a game of chess, it was off to bed to get up early for our onward journey to Cartagena.

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Posted by mattandsusanne 19:23 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City)

15th April to 19th April 2014

We woke up early to pack all our things, after being moved to a different room as our air con didn’t work, which was definitely needed in the stifling heat. Eventually someone from Magic Tours arrived (our lost city tour company) to pick us up and whisk us away on the start of our Colombian jungle adventure. The first part of the adventure was being squashed into a pick-up truck for two and a half hours as we drove through the Tayrona National Park towards a small village called Mamey where the trek started. The last hour was particularly difficult as the road turned into a rough dirt track, which the driver enjoyed a lot by speeding around corners. When we arrived after the sweaty journey, we had lunch at a small restaurant with the rest of the group. Our group consisted of two Dutch girls and eight Colombians on holiday for semana santa and a really nice guide called José or Marón (Mr Brown) who over the trip turned out to be a wealth of information with 23 years of experience. The people in the group were all really nice and it was great to spend some time with actual Colombians, learning more about the country and its culture. By the end of the trip we had invitations to visit people in two cities down in the south, so we get to be guided round by the locals! After our lunch, Marón ominously told us that the first day would be tough, uphill and incredibly hot in the afternoon sun, so with that we began the epic five-day journey to the lost city (Ciudad perdida).
The trek was simply amazing and definitely one of the highlights of our trip around the world so far. It was incredibly tough and we weren’t sure that we’d even make it on some occasions. In total it was a 46km-there-and-back-again trek through agricultural land, forest and primary jungle to the ancient lost city. Each day we trekked at least 4 hours and on a couple of days we did about 8 hours in the stifling heat and humidity – we sweated from places we didn’t know existed! If you imagine entering a tropical butterfly or monkey house in a zoo and try to trek steeply uphill, you might get the idea. The trek was up and down, up and down the whole way which made it even harder – going up was sweaty and really difficult, and going down was hard on the knees. Some of the ascents were particularly tough as we needed to walk up steep slopes for at least an hour. Luckily there were loads of fresh water pools along the river to go swimming in around lunch and dinner time, which were freezing cold but really freshened us up after a hard day’s walking. Most of the pools had little cliffs, so we could jump straight into the water from a height. The most amazing thing was how clear the water was – from above it was a beautiful, turquoise-green colour and was so clear that you could see every stone on the bottom and every little fish that was swimming past. It was quite incredible.

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Each day we stopped at one of three camps that were dotted along the trek, each with its own natural swimming pool. For the first two nights we had to sleep in hammocks and then on the final two nights we managed to get beds, which was amazing after so much walking. On the first night, we arrived in the late afternoon and went for a swim before having a big dinner (the food was really good, varied and came in healthy portions). José our guide explained to us some of the history of the area as well as some general Colombian history to set the scene for the rest of the walk. During the civil war that broke out in the 1950s, many people escaped the cities and farmers left for remoter areas to find a safer life. Of these people, many agricultural workers found a home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where the trek is located. However, the situation was bad for them and due to a decline in the commerce of agricultural products, many people lived in poverty. This is where the production of marijuana came in, and it became a viable choice for many people in the area giving them income to survive on. Of course the cultivation of any drug brings with it problems, and in this area the main issue was the arrival of the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) an organisation that opposed the government and got a lot of its revenue through drugs. The FARC began to control the region and drug production in the area. When the government stepped in, they carpet bombed the area with chemicals which destroyed the plantations and also had the knock effect of deformations in babies, deaths and the contamination of the soil which lasts to this day affecting the growth of crops in the area. Still under the control of the FARC, however, drug production in the area quickly moved from marijuana to cocaine which was becoming increasingly popular in the west. Our guide even mentioned how he worked in the cocaine plantations / production factory for a couple of months before he became a tourist guide when the lost city opened for tourism! He said this was simply what people did – there weren’t other options. It is important to bear in mind though that indigenous communities in this area have been growing coca for centuries as a sacred plant that is chewed and drunk as tea; it is only when it’s cut with chemicals that it turns into what we know as cocaine. Both of us tried some of the leaves to eat – it is supposed to give you more energy for the walk but just tasted nasty! Eventually the FARC were pushed out of the area, but paramilitary groups organised by the farmers cropped up to defend themselves where the government and military couldn’t. Nowadays the area is completely secured and the Colombian military control a couple of outposts to keep security. All the cocaine plantations have been destroyed (apart from small amounts of coca leaves for indigenous people which they are still allowed to grow) and the government has supported the farmers in regaining agriculture and commerce, so the picture is a lot better.

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But enough of the history… after our talk on the first night we were told abruptly that we needed to get up at 5.15am, so at 9.30pm we rushed to our hammocks to get some sleep. This was pretty much how the rest of the trip went – we arrived in the late afternoon, swam a bit, ate some food, cleaned ourselves up a bit and then went to bed early ready for an early wakeup and more hardcore walking. Day two was a killer and we walked for hours and hours, with much of the trek going uphill. The next day we started early to get up the 1200 steps to the lost city. When we arrived, José gave us a lecture about the place and its history filling in the story at various points as he took us on a three and a half hour tour of the site. The Tayrona civilisation that built the city arrived into Colombia in 500AD having migrated from Asia over many years. In 700AD they built this city and by 1000AD it had become the political, social and religious capital of their civilization, a civilization that spanned over 200 sites in the area. They were also great producers of gold which they moulded into elaborate statutes and adornments to depict social status and worship. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s the relations were initially amicable and revolved around commerce. However, eventually the Spanish began to dominate the Tayrona which started a long war that the Tayrona obviously lost due to their lack of arms. Many were taken as slaves and a lot of interbreeding went on. With the arrival of African slaves, there was more mixture between the three races (Africans, Europeans and Indigenous) which created different hybrid groups that today make up the ethnic diversity of the area and Colombia in general. The indigenous Kogis who still live in the area claim to be pure descendants of the Tayronas. The city was abandoned and only found again in 1973 by a group of grave/gold diggers who found the site and pillaged it for the mass of gold that was buried with the Tayrona’s dead. Often though, these grave diggers shared out the wealth only to have one kill the others to steal their share of the golf. 5 dead people were found in the city by a subsequent grave digger who went to the police. Tayrona people used to bury their dead in their own houses in the centre of the house in the foetal position with some of their belongings. They believed that people needed not just food and drink to get to the afterlife, but also their gold possessions. These houses were abandoned when people died, as other family members had moved onto their own houses. A bit of the corpse’s hair also came up through the earth and when the hair detaches, they know that the dead person had gone to the after world. Tayrona people married, but lived strictly separate lives as sexual relations were seen as unclean. In the late 1970s, the site started to be protected by the government and archaeologists started to restore and research the site, and it opened for tourism in the 1980s. Initially, the site was policed, but after a police chief killed two officers patrolling the site and ran off with the gold (his whereabouts are still unknown), the military moved in and continues to keep the site safe. When we got further into the complex it really was a sight to behold with ever-increasing terraces situated in amongst the densely forested valley – it was quite amazing and we couldn’t believe how people could ever have built such a site.

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After the city, we started to head back to camp 2 where we stayed the night. As usual in the morning it was much better and the mulla (horse cross donkey) luckily was able to carry her bag. The rest of the group headed off on the fourth day for the long journey all the way back to the village we started at, while we stayed in camp 1 before finishing the trek on the 5th day. We arrived early to camp 1 and so had loads of time to chill out, read, swim and watch the birds. Generally the trek went off without a hitch for us and the rest of our group. One woman had to turn back on day 2 because she got sick and another girl couldn’t make it after about 30mins into day 1 and so she took a mule for the remainder of the journey apart from the final steps to the city which she unfortunately couldn’t manage. Susanne’s stomach saga continued as she got another round of food poisoning on the 3rd evening (it was during the night in the pitch black with nothing but a torch which wasn’t nice at all) and also had a dodgy foot, so the walk on day 4 was quite tough for her but she battled through and by day 5 she was feeling okay apart from her sore foot. Overall it was an absolutely amazing experience and we loved every minute of it. To spend that long in the jungle and really escape civilisation for days was great, and the difficulty of the walk felt like we put ourselves through some process of purification by sweating and cleaning out the pores! We would recommend it to anyone who ever wants to come to Colombia, although it shouldn’t be taken lightly – it’s a tough old walk! On day 5 we eventually made it back to the village we started in where we had a well-deserved lunch and Matt had his first beer since before the trip. After waiting around for hours, we took a jeep back to Santa Marta with another really nice group. We tried to stay with them at a hostel with a swimming pool just out of town (which would have been great), but it was all booked. So we were taken into the main town where we eventually found a decent enough hotel (which was pretty much the only one available) to rest out weary bones. We looked around Santa Marta for a little bit in the afternoon, which was a bit of a nothingy town apart from the really nice cathedral. Next stop will be Cartagena, an old colonial town four hours along the coast, before making our way south.

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Posted by mattandsusanne 18:49 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Taganga

13th April to 14th April 2014


After our day in San Gil, we headed to the bus station to take our first overnight Colombian bus to the North. We were slightly concerned, but booked with a company that had good reviews. Although the bus arrived late, it was in a great condition and lo and behold it had two drivers to take it in turns through the night. There were also nice, comfy seats that reclined and lots of leg room, so we actually had quite a comfortable journey up to the coast. We first arrived in a large coastal town called Santa Marta, but got a taxi straight away from the station to Taganga which is a smaller town on the Caribbean coast and our jumping off point for the lost city jungle trek in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. We were quite excited by the prospect of spending a couple of days on the beach, and when you think of the Caribbean coast you think swaying palm trees, white sands, turquoise water and so on – how far from the truth could that have been! When we arrived we thought we had entered Armageddon – the town was a dump with rubbish everywhere, crumbling buildings, dirt track roads and rather bad (and expensive) hostels. We managed to find an alright place which luckily had a nice swimming pool, so that slightly cheered us up. Unfortunately the beach didn’t save the day either – it wasn’t sand but fine grey stones, no swaying palms, rubbish and hoards of people made even worse because of the influx of Colombians coming for Easter week holidays (Semana Santa). Because the region hasn’t had rain in five months, it was also really dry and quite unlike the lush pictures we had seen of the place. We cursed the name of Lonely Planet as the town had received a really good write up in our guidebook. However, after cheering ourselves up in the pool we went around the town in the late afternoon and once we scratched below the surface, we found that the place was actually quite cool. It had a good vibe, with loads of locals chilling out and drinking beers, loud music coming out of shops, so it wasn’t all bad and the water was beautiful to swim in.

The next day we decided to escape the mass of people on Taganga’s main beach and headed over the coastal hills to some of the quieter bays. As we left slightly later than intended, the heat was overbearing and by the time we reached playa grande we were dripping with sweat. This beach was also packed with loads of people and there were hawkers trying to get you to take sun beds or buy juices and cerviches, so we decided to head a little further to find some other bays over the hills that were quieter. The views were quite beautiful with the lovely clear water below and the hills and mountains in the background. Eventually we found a small little bay that wasn’t much to look at and wasn’t particularly clean, but it had beautifully clear, turquoise water that was freezing cold and wonderful to swim in with the incredible heat – so generally things were looking up! We chilled out there for most of the day, before heading back to playa grande where we went on a round, blow up banana boat type thing attached to a speed boat which flung us around the bay and flipped us off on a couple of occasions. It was only about 5 minutes long, but was great fun and Matt nearly lost his shorts again! In the evening we chilled out on the waterfront in Taganga and ate what was basically the Colombian equivalent of cheesy chips (called Salchipapas) but with some weird plastic cheese, strange sauces and salad – it wasn’t the greatest thing in the world but certainly filled us up. After a chilled out beer on the beach, it was early to bed so we were refreshed and ready to take on la ciudad perdida (lost city) trek. You’ll have to wait until the next blog to see if we survived the jungle!!

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Posted by mattandsusanne 20:30 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

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